Retraining A Racehorse – Week Three.

It’s that time, my weekly write up on the week that I’ve had with Azzerti. I’d love to write that it’s all been smooth sailing, that he’s wonderful in every single way and that retraining a horse is an absolute breeze, but that wouldn’t be staying true and honest.
As is the way with training or retraining horses, nothing is ever as simple as following the instructions. Each horse thinks differently and responds differently to it’s work and it’s environment and this week I found out about how Azzerti responds to the world, with him very quickly trying to deposit me onto my backside. It’s very much been a week of two halves, so we’ll start from the beginning.

Building Blocks.

In dressage training we talk about the building blocks of dressage or the scales of training and last week in my blog I spoke about getting the basics right and thinking of it like the foundations of a house. So this week, with the arena defrosted, I set about working with Azzerti on the first building block; rhythm.
Quite often riders will get stuck on the final image and overall impression of a horse, focusing on the horses ‘frame’ or ‘outline’, especially in retraining when an ex-racehorses response is often to stick its head in the air like a demented giraffe or to work in a way that is very long and disconnected. This focus on the end result can stop riders actually working on the things that create that result. So for me and my horses the first step is their rhythm, when you and your horse find a good rhythm, often other things start to fall into place.
Finding the rhythm and tempo that best suits your horse is like finding the biting point on the clutch of a new car, it takes a little bit of figuring out and getting used to, but once you’ve got it, everything goes much more smoothly.

So with Azzerti this week, I spent some time trying to find that point in which his natural tempo began to encourage his back to lift, his head to drop (no more demented giraffe impression) and everything just start to come more together. To do this I do a few different things; pole work (I do love a pole) and using the outside track of the arena to play around with the pace, slowing the horse on the short sides, pushing forward on the long sides, then switching it up and finding out what works and what feels best. I think of it as transitions within a pace, which later will help with keeping the horse adjustable and supple.

To begin with simple is often best, not many of the racers will have done trotting poles so keeping it easy for them will ensure we don’t fry their brains. So a simple row of four trot poles can help establish the rhythm, I then move onto the square pole diagram with them, encouraging the horse to maintain the trot rhythm, even when poles are omitted. This layout is so versatile, as you can use it for transitions in the rails, canter poles horizontally across the square and as trot poles that you can add and build on to.

When it comes to pole work Azzerti has taken to it like a fish to water, it really helps him focus, he stops thinking about resisting the contact of my hands on the rein and instead thinks about his feet, being super careful over the poles and using his body. So for this, he’s an A+ student.

This is the book that I use for a lot of my jumping and pole work exercises:

Stick it up!

Jumping a horse when it first comes ‘off the track’ is a bit of a taboo subject, on social media a lot of people get stick for it and it’s something I have mixed feelings on. Yes, the horse has worked hard in racing and yes the way they jump in racing is different. But I love to keep the horses moving, keep their bodies working and their mind focused and interested. So, if you have a horse that loves to jump? Jump it!
Maybe don’t stick up a big course of fences and expect it to act like a grand prix show jumper trying to beat the clock. But like anything, keep it simple and take it back to basics.
Which is what I decided to do with Azzerti whilst I had my mum on the yard to help me. Well, this didn’t entirely go to my plan, but he was great. In my mind I thought, hey, let’s do some flat work and pole work, then just pop a little cross pole jump up and see what he does. What he did was not ideal, he ploughed through it, sending poles flying.
Cue my mum saying “Well bloody tell him what to do then!” After a few attempts with the same result, we came to the conclusion that he just didn’t see the point in the pathetic cross pole, so we stuck it up a bit and sure enough, the wonderful boy jumped it! Making a good shape and all of a sudden coming in to his own natural rhythm and frame in the canter work.
We decided to do a few more jumps, trying to figure out his canter and finding the correct stride to a fence with him, as he feels so different to Grumeti and he just absolutely loved it! He locked on to the jump every time and took me to it, I can see me having some Bryony Frost and Frodon style moments with this one when it comes to going eventing.

One positive for jumping at the start of retraining is that it helps to keep their minds fresh. Constantly going round an arena in circles, trying to teach them new things can really sour their attitudes to work, so taking the pressure off and doing something fun like this, can really help them, without you having to go hacking.

Yes Coach!

I mentioned last week that currently my regular coach isn’t training due to her governing bodies COVID restrictions, so instead I had a friend come and coach us. She’s got her ex-racehorse up to I think Medium level dressage, despite him having various injuries and she’s judged my horses at a dressage competition before. So I value her opinion and was excited to get her guidance with Azzerti. Let me tell you something, he was spectacular.

At this stage I’ll admit, it took him a while to settle and focus on me and not everything going on around him (visualise the demented giraffe again), but when he got it right, my lord, he felt amazing.

We continued the work on the basics, getting the transitions between paces snappy and balanced, getting that sweet spot in his rhythm nice and quickly and not losing it on turns and bends. He tried his heart out for me, which for a horse three weeks out of the race yard, is just brilliant. He clearly loves to learn and already has some pretty expressive paces.

I was over the moon, my coach/friend loved him and we both left the menage feeling very excited about Azzerti’s development. I truly think that once he’s more established and consistent in this new way of working, he will be very, very impressive.

Set backs.

Setbacks are part and parcel of training and retraining, you can leap forward, fall back, do a massive loop and end up somewhere near where you were before, you can plateau. All sorts of things can happen, it’s the same with humans, but with horses, we have the added strain of them not being able to communicate with us.

The day after our session with coach, I gave Azzerti the day to rest, mooch about in the field and have lots of food and fuss, but the next day when I got back on, he was like a different horse. He was so unhappy, so tense and so stressed out. I just couldn’t fathom why. He went around like a demented giraffe and then started throwing himself around like a deranged snake (these are getting silly now). He became absolutely terrified of one end of our arena and I couldn’t figure out why. Other than a very feint metal on metal noise, there was nothing to upset him, but that’s horses for you!

I got off, spent 15 minutes doing some ground work with him in the ‘spooky corner’, attempting to show him that it was all okay and then I put him in the field for the day.
I then spent the whole day wondering if I had done the right thing. Had I scared him further by forcing him to be in that corner? Had I been too soft on him? What if we’ve had a big setback and he’ll always be terrified in there?

After pondering and stressing about this for most of the day, I spoke to David, head lad at Alan Kings, who used to ride Azzerti when he was in training. He advised that he had worked Azzerti in ear plugs. Now, ear plugs aren’t competition legal, so I went and got him the next best thing. Acoustic ear bonnets from Le Mieux, with padded ears to help muffle sound.

So today, I got back on, with our new daft accessory and away he went, happy and settled in his quiet little world. So thank you David and thank you social media, for enabling people like myself to stay in contact with the people that loved these horses in their first careers.

I’m going to wrap up here as this post is getting super long and it’s getting late.
I’ll just finish on a note that I think is important to me.

My heart goes out to all the stable lads and lasses that have gone home with empty horseboxes this weekend, to the owners, trainers and all connections, who have loved and moulded these amazing horses into the awe inspiring athletes that steal our hearts and our imaginations. They will live on in our memories and in your hearts forever and I’ll keep you in my thoughts whilst you mourn and heal. I am so sorry.

XOXO Katie.

Feel free to follow me on my social media channels for more insights into life with Grumeti & Azzerti

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